Oral histories of migrants moving to the country’s capital
In 1950, there were less than half a million people living in Dhaka city. Barely sixty years later, there are now close to 16 million. Few cities around the world have experienced such rapid expansion over such a short amount of time.
There are different factors that led to Dhaka’s population boom. While the country’s population increased almost five-fold in this same duration of time, the city’s population grew close to 3,200%.
Rural-to-urban migration played a major role in this population expansion. People across the country come to Dhaka for both push and pull factors. Migrants are pulled to Dhaka because of the ample opportunity; this is because most of the country’s resources and capital investment are centralized here.
A World Bank report from 2013 estimates Bangladesh’s export garment sector alone led to an increase of urbanization by 30%.
Migrants are also pushed to move from their home villages, whether because of a lack of job opportunity or environmental hazards only predicted to become worse due to climate change.
Since Dhaka cannot accommodate this mass influx of internal migrants, almost 45% of the residents of the city find themselves living in informal settlements, also known as slums or “bostis”.
In attempt to put faces to these statistics, the following oral histories of migrant’s journeys were collected as part of the University of Sussex project, “The Unknown City: the (in)visibility of urban displacement”. Names have been changed for anonymity; and transcripts translated and edited for clarity.
Nuruddin (27 years old)
My name is Nuruddin. I live in Bhola slum with my wife and two children; one girl and one boy. My daughter is 8 years old, and my boy is 6. Every month, I pay Tk3,000 taka for this room. It’s very expensive.
I sell fish and do not earn that much. I used to live in Bhola with my parents and seven siblings. I was the third child of the eight in my family. My father used to sell shupari, chilli and rice at different seasons. He hardly earned enough to support our big family so I decided to escape. I was probably 8 years old when I made a plan with another friend to come to Dhaka. We took a launch and reached Sadarghat in old Dhaka.
We had no clue where to go and stayed at that port for next two days. Then we went back to our village. I was frightened because I didn’t have any cash with me so I decided to go back. After about a month I again left home for Dhaka again without telling anyone; this time I had Tk200-250. There used to be slum at Mirpur 10 where I started working in a small roadside restaurant. I used to wash their dishes and brought water for them. I worked there for next five years until I started working in another restaurant which was a bigger one. I was given a room by the owner of the restaurant which I shared with other workers of the restaurant for next 6-7 years. I started selling fish and vegetables for some extra money. I used to sell vegetables to the restaurant.
Then I moved to Bhola slum in 2002 because the slum is full of people from Bhola, my area. I met my wife in this slum; her family used to live here. My mother still lives in the same village, my father died. None of my siblings moved to Dhaka, they still live in Bhola. I have been selling fish for last 7-8 years. My wife works as a household help. I regret coming to Dhaka; everything is so expensive here. I want to sell everything I have and go back to Bhola someday.
Sabina (31 years old)
I came to Dhaka several years ago when my son was only two years old. I was born in Ilishshya junction in Bhola. My father was a fisherman and my mother a housewife. I have five brothers and sisters. None of us went to school. My sisters and I used to help my mother around household work and rest of the time we used to play around. We used to swim in river. Then I got married at the age of 13 to a person who was also a fisherman like my father. He used to go to rivers for fishing.
When I was 15, my husband got married again. By that time, I already had a son. When my son was two years old, I moved to Dhaka with my mother’s cousin and my sister. We took a launch and it cost us Tk300. My sister and I rented a house, rent was Tk500 then. It has increased 7 times since then, it is now Tk 3,500. I am still working as a household help at two houses. My son is all grown up now and works in a garments factory and we are still staying together.
My three brothers and my mother are still living in the same village. I stay at Bhola slum because I cannot stay with my brothers in the village. They won’t allow me to stay there and what will I do there?
Karim Bhuiyan (around 50 years old)
I was born in Bhola. My father used to work as a day laborer in others farms. I had five siblings. None of us could go to school. I started working at an early age and also got married. I have six children, four of them were born in Bhola. One night in the year 2000 river took our house and we had nothing left. After that I came to Dhaka leaving my family in Bhola. First, I moved to Pallabi and lived there for 4-5 years. I used to work as a day laborer. I did not have to pay rent as the plot was empty and we were just living there building temporary polythene shelters. I used to work as a day labourer. Then my family moved here and I had to rent a place at the Duaripara slum.
Fortunately, my wife got a job at a local garments factory as someone from our village worked there who helped her to get the job. My wife continued working there for next 7-8 years. After living in Duaripara for 2-3 years, the slum was demolished and we had to move to Bhola slum. First, we rented one room and stayed there for a few years. Eventually, we managed to build our own house here. We took loan to build this house, I still need to pay another Tk1.5 lakh.
My wife still works in a garment factory and I still work as a day labourer. I do not have any legal document of the land or the house. I have invested so much money and still I am scared that the government will throw us out. I hope that will not be the case, I just want to stay where I am now. We have got a stay order from the High Court.
Naznin Nasir and Meraz Mostafa coordinate and work under the Migration programme at ICCCAD respectively.